I almost led off with something along the lines of "Elena is slow" - and I do go there later in the review - but opted not to, because the slowness, in and of itself, isn't my real complaint about the movie. Plus, "the guy who doesn't like slow movies" isn't exactly a pigeonhole I want to inhabit, no matter how well the pattern seems to fit.
Still, as much as I liked Elena, at least through the first half, it does take its time, and is in fact the sort of movie where, if I had been wearing my watch, I might have taken notes of when it started and when the first line of dialogue or noteworthy action was. The opening scene is really astonishingly static, a single shot of the branches outside the apartment, which stays held with no music, camera movement, or activity until a sparrow comes to perch for what is probably just a minute or so but seems like an eternity.
Something kind of funny happens with the audience here, actually - the audience remains as quiet and still as the image, even as the scene shifts to another quiet scene. And then, as soon as there's not just a bit of dialogue but some actual background noise, you can hear everybody who got something at the concession stand quietly take a bite or sip. After all, the audience at the boutique house knows how to behave, but those of us who hadn't had dinner were also all kind of hungry.
(Well, most knew how to behave; the elderly couple just behind me would not stop loudly whispering to each other. Man, seniors can be just as bad as teenagers!)
* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 3 June 2012 in Landmark Kendall Square #4 (first-run, 35mm)
There's a certain type of story that appears in magazines devoted to mystery and suspense which doesn't really present much of either, but instead strips all the plot away and focuses tightly on what the pressures on one character are. They're usually rather short - the writers do that one thing and get out. Elena is sort of like those stories, but drawn out to feature length and not quite compensating for the lack of a narrator with its excellent craft.
Elena (Nadezhda Markina) and Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov) live in a fancy apartment in Moscow, each on their second marriage, and each with a child from the first. For Elena, it's Sergei (Aleksey Rozin), who lives on the outskirts of the city with his wife and sons; Vladimir's daughter Katya (Elena Lyadova) spends her father's money but doesn't talk to him much. Elena would like Vladimir to pay her grandson Sasha's college tuition; he doesn't feel any sort of obligation.
Though Elena was originally conceived as a London-set, English-language feature made for an international audience, it's very tempting and natural for an American viewer to read it as commentary on today's Russia. And, to a certain extent, he probably should, even if that's not completely the filmmakers' intent; even if writer Oleg Negin and director Andrei Zvyagintsev mean to create something universal, they're doing it with the haves and have-nots of a very specific place and time. The blunt cynicism frequently on display is a Russian tradition, although the particular class divisions on display a generation after the fall of communism have parallels in many other places.
Full review at EFC.